Intricately plotted and deftly layered with dicey issues of identity and status, Heart of Stone is another terrific entry in this spunky, energetic series featuring the likable Ellie Stone and that Cold War in-between-everything era of 1961.
If you’ve read the three books leading up to this one (I’ve read the last two), you know the intrepid Ellie is a reporter in a small-town newspaper called the New Holland Republic in upstate New York. Heart of Stone takes place during summer downtime at a lakeside in the Adirondacks. Ellie’s natural inquisitiveness and sense of order come in handy when two men are found splat dead on the beach, apparently having misjudged the leap necessary to safely dive to the water.
Sounds like the set-up for your basic amateur sleuth mystery, right? Well, maybe. First, Ellie is asked by the local chief of police, Ralph “Tiny” Terwilliger, to assist by helping photograph the bodies with her ever-handy Leica. The cop is camera-less and also a bit clueless about photography. He’s also more than a bit of a boor and has opinions about the “Jew Communists” staying at the “Hebrew kee-boots,” a.k.a. the nearby Arcadia Lodge.
Ellie is happy to help and doesn’t even mind, too much, getting close to the bodies or figuring out all the angles to take of the scene, whether not it’s yet known to be a crime. Ellie briefly contemplates the ghastly scene on the beach and the jumping-off point above, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to instantly drop her sunbathing plans and grab the nearest magnifying glass. Hardly. Ziskin lets the story build like a slow-gathering wave. Ellie knows that “procedures” belong to the police. She supplies the contact sheets to the cop, wonders casually about what could have possibly happened to lead two men to the fatal plunge, and goes about her summer.
An intense fling develops as Ellie finds herself hanging around the aforementioned “kee-boots,” the communal Arcadia Lodge where the musicians play Puccini and Verdi and pass the whiskey. Heart of Stone is well-populated (a Ziskin trademark) and more—there’s even a prison escapee who is allegedly loose in the woods nearby. Once the questions around the odd-couple deaths turn from accident to murder, there is a small army of suspects in place. So the slow turn toward investigation, when Ellie turns up the jets on her reporter snoop-doggedness, doesn’t happen until dead middle of the story.
“The day was bright. The wind and rain of the previous night had passed, and the August sun was back in the saddle. It was only half past noon, but Wednesday promised to be an exhausting day. I was supposed to be on vacation, yet I was chasing a story that was surely just an accident. Yes, there were a few details about the diving deaths that didn’t make sense. But what did I think had happened? Had the two men been pushed off the cliff? Was this a case of double suicide?”
Ellie has an “obsessive devotion to clearing up remainders and riddles” and soon she is out studying the crime from new angles with fresh eyes and her analytical powers in full force. Fans of the series know full well that her camera will help piece the puzzle together. All the camera nostalgia, from Tri-X film to darkroom enlargers, is fantastic. The camera doesn’t lie. On the other hand, there are the humans who do. And many have arrived on the shore of Prospector Lake with a rich variety of back stories and dark secrets that go straight to the heart of the era’s cultural divides, social norms, sexual politics, racism and more. More than a few have tried to change their stripes or shed their skins. (Maybe one too many?) Heart of Stone does not lack for themes or issues. The story is sprinkled with world politics of the day, from who gets to work in Hollywood to the John Birch Society.
But the key here is Ellie—she’s a Dewars-sipping, forward-thinking “modern” young woman. She’s independent, feisty, and smart. For the first time, we get to see her get cozy (and then some) with a true love interest. She’s free spirited, a few years ahead of her time. She’ll make the switch from classical music to meaningful folk music, I have no doubt, when the time comes. And that free-thinking mentality and open mind is what helps her figure out why the two men took their fatal tumbles. Long may Ellie run.
Previous review of Stone Cold Dead and Q & A with James W. Ziskin is here.